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SORTES lots. Among the modes of divination practised by the Italian nations, the drawing of lots was one of the most common and most characteristic. We do indeed find it also in Greece (Cic. de Div. 1.3. 4, 76), but there it was entirely overshadowed by the prophetic frenzy, and inspiration through dreams. In Italy we must distinguish between the sortes which were localised in special temples, and which corresponded more or less to the Grecian oracles [ORACULUM p. 292], and those which could be drawn by any person and in any place. Of the former kind, we hear specially of the sortes at Praeneste (Cic. de Div. 2.4. 1, 85, the locus classicus on the subject: cf. Propert. 2.32, 3; Suet. Tib. 63), at Caere (Liv. 21.62), at Falerii (Id. 22.1), at the temple, celebrated afterwards by Byron, on the Clitumnus (Plin. Ep. 8.8), and at the fons Aponus near Patavium (Suet. Tib. 14). It is probable that there were also sortes at the oracular seat of Fortuna at Antium, but the evidence is not quite clear that this mode of divination was practised there. The sortes were little tablets or counters, made of wood or other materials: after they had been mixed together, a boy would draw one at random, which then was taken as art omen. Some rough verse or proverb was written on each, such as the one mentioned by Livy (l.c.), “Mavors telum suum concutit,” which appropriately enough is said to have leapt out from the other lots at Falerii when Hannibal was marching towards lake Trasimene. As a prognostication of misfortune, the lots are said to have become miraculously smaller in size (Id. ib.). Seventeen lots in bronze, oblong, and pierced with a hole (so that they could be strung together) have been discovered near Padua (and so not far from the fons Aponus above mentioned): the lines written on them are given by Th. Mommsen (C. I. L. 1.267-270). As a specimen take the following:--“Est equos perpulcer, sed tu vehi non potes istoc.” A peculiar way of drawing the lots, common when mere chance was appealed to (without any thought of a prophetic intimation), will be found mentioned under the article SITULA It is not clear whether the dice mentioned in the passage referred to from Suetonius (Suet. Tib. 14) would themselves have been called sortes or not. The range of prophecy comprised by these “lots” must have been limited, and their application often doubtful; hence we cannot be surprised at what Cicero tells us (1. c.), that this kind of divination was in his time obsolete, except at Praeneste. It had, however, been sufficiently famous in its time for the term sortes to be a customary name for any kind of oracular deliverance (cf. Cic. de Div. 2.5. 6, 115; Verg. A. 4.346, 377. In Aen. 6.72 the word is applied to the Sibylline books). The sortes of the fons Aponus had a revival in later times (see the Augustan history, Claud. 10; Firmus, 3).

While, however, the sortes as a branch of official religion died out more rapidly than perhaps any other kind of divination, as an irregular superstition they were the most long-lived of all the elements of heathenism, and lasted far into Christian times. The Sortes Vergilianae were famous (Lamprid. Alex. Sever. 14; Spartian. Hadr. 2). Just in the same way in which the heathens used Homer or Virgil, and as the Mussulmen of the present day use the Koran and Hafiz, so did Christians use the Bible and Psalter, by opening them at random, and taking the first line on which the eye fell as an indication of future occurrences. (See Augustin. Confess. 4.3; and the very curious sermon de Augriis, numbered cclxxviii. in the appendix to the sermons of Augustine, but probably by Caesarius.) Even the very form of tablets was borrowed from heathenism; they were made either of wood or bread, as we see from their prohibition by the council held at Auxerre (Autissiodurum) about A.D. 578. These sortes sanctorum (of which we learn that a volume existed) were frequently condemned by the councils; but so natural was the tendency, that even a conference of orthodox bishops could not help drawing omens from the accidental occurrence of passages in the lessons for the day, and recording them in their minutes (see Acta Conciliorum, vol. ii. p. 965. A reference to the words Sortes and Sortilegi in the index to these Acta will show a number of interesting passages on the subject; cf. also Gibbon, Decline and Fall, c. xxxviii., note 51. The curious word caragi or caragii apparently is used as more or less equivalent to sortilegi).

The Sortes Conviviales were tablets sealed up, which were sold at entertainments, and upon being opened or unsealed entitled the purchaser [p. 2.688]to things of very unequal value; they were therefore a kind of lottery. (Suet. Aug. 75; Lamprid. Heliogabal. 22.)

[W.S] [J.R.M]

hide References (10 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (10):
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 4.346
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 4.377
    • Suetonius, Tiberius, 14
    • Suetonius, Tiberius, 63
    • Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 75
    • Pliny the Younger, Epistulae, 8.8
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 21, 62
    • Cicero, De Divinatione, 1.3
    • Cicero, De Divinatione, 2.4
    • Cicero, De Divinatione, 2.5
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